This is a guest post by Grant Findley.
Choosing and hiring the right building contractor for your latest home project is no easy task.
The last thing you want to do is hire a cowboy builder or con artist, so you’ll need a way of vetting potential contractors until you’re feeling confident and comfortable with your selection.
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I’ve been a contractor for many years now, taking over the family business Findley Roofing and Building from my father. Over that time I’ve been asked hundreds of questions, all of which I’ve been happy to answer with complete honesty.
Like all contractors should.
People who ask me a ton of questions are savvy and feel completely confident they’ve made the right choice when they hire my company: if you’re not sure how to vet your potential contractors, take a leaf out of their book.
Below I’ve compiled a list of the top 15 questions that you should be asking your potential contractors before you go in and hire them for your next home project. Whether your project is tiling a new roof, re-wiring the electrics, redesigning the garden or any other important home improvement work, use these questions to learn everything you need to know about the contractors you want to work with.
Top 15 questions to ask a potential building contractor BEFORE hiring
Some of these questions are essentials that I’m asked on a daily basis. Some are curveballs you can throw to eliminate cowboys, and others will test the expertise of contractors and give you an idea of what the quality of their work will be like.
1 Have you completed similar projects before?
A contractor that’s completed similar or identical project to yours is a huge plus. Don’t just ask in terms of the work, but ask about the property as well – does the contractor have experience working on your type of property and know its quirks?
If you want to delve a bit further to find out their past experiences, ask how long they’ve been in business, how business is going right now, what major projects they’re proud of… then go online and check their website (it’s the 21st century, they really should have one by now) to make sure the about page corroborates their story.
2 What safety procedures do you follow?
Professional contractors will have set procedures in place should something go wrong. They should know how to work safely, bringing their own safety equipment with them. Bad contractors will be easy to spot when you ask this question – they’ll either not know how to answer or give short, quick responses or rattle off health and safety laws which they can’t explain when you ask them to elaborate.
Will they protect your property when working on it? If they’re trampling through the garden each day will they bring boards and covers so your lawn isn’t damaged? These are good questions to ask to get a feel for how the contractor will treat your home while working there.
3 What is the estimated timeline for completion?
If they give you a very exact timeline when you’ve not given them much detail or they haven’t completed a project like yours before, this could be a warning sign. I’d never over promise and under deliver: contractors should be honest, giving a rough estimate if they can and explaining why they can’t be more exact.
If it seems too good to be true, and they can’t elaborate on why it will take this long, I’d avoid this contractor. On the other hand, if they’re honest and can explain why they’re being so exact in the timeline, they could be the contractor for you.
4 What warranties are in place for your services and materials that are used?
This is an important question that I’m not asked enough. A good contractor will be able to give you realistic guarantees and outline them fully in writing. It’s not good enough for a contractor to say yes you’re covered for everything over the phone. It needs to be exact, in writing and agreed on.
If the contractor can provide you with insurance backed guarantee, that means any problems can be put right and paid for by the insurance company if the contractor goes out of business.
Some materials that contractors use may have manufacturer’s warranty too, so ask for a list of which materials these are.
5 What other details do you need from me?
A good contractor who wants to do a good job will need plenty of details from you to give an accurate quote and timeline for the project. Contractors that need to be prompted with this question when they start suggesting figures and timelines should be assessed with suspicion – they could be pulling these out of thin air.
6 Can I see certificates of your insurance?
UK law states that contractors should have public liability insurance, so ask to see the certificates in person. If they’ve got employees then they are also legally obliged to have employer’s liability insurance. If your contractor can’t provide you with either certificate or evidence of insurance, cross them off the list straight away.
7 How do we deal with changes to the specification?
You’ll want to know how things will work if an unexpected change happens – will you get a refund of whatever money you paid already? Will they put your house back to how it was before leaving? Find out their policy AND get it in writing. A professional contractor with plenty of experience should be able to answer this with confidence, even if they’ve never come across a problem in previous work.
8 What tools do you work with and how?
Asking this question now gives you time to warn the neighbours if the contractor is going to be noisy with drills, or parking a van full of tools on the kerb by your house each day. Asking for the name of each tool so you can research them and check they’re suitable would be hard work and take up a lot of time. Instead, try asking what brand tools they prefer to use and why – a professional contractor will have picked out the best tools for the job, while an unprofessional will just be using whatever is cheap and available to them.
Pay attention when asking this question and if you don’t understand the terminology, ask them to explain: professionals won’t have a problem with this, you’ll be able to tell that they know what they’re talking about.
9 Do you know what sort of building permissions I will need for this project?
This is a good question. If you’re clueless about this then a good contractor should be able to point you in the right direction – if they offer to obtain any necessary building permissions, then just ask to see them to be sure, double check with the council that it has really gone through, and make sure you ask if the contractor will charge for these services.
If you already know the answer then you’ll be testing their knowledge and expertise.
10 Are there previous customers or trade references I can contact?
Unfortunately, we live in a world where online reviews can be faked. Ask if there’s anyone you can contact who will verify the contractor and their work. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a client of theirs if the contractor isn’t permitted to share details of previous clients. As a contractor, I’ve worked with many people who’d be happy to verify my expertise, from those at the BBC’s DIY SOS to business owners I’ve worked on office roofs for.
If something doesn’t feel quite right, don’t hesitate to ask around the local community to see if anyone has had dealings with this contractor before. Another tip would be to call the company and ask who you need to speak to about issues with previous work. Do they have a process or a department to deal with such enquiries or do they take your name and never follow up the supposed after sales service request?
11 Who will be working on the project?
Will it be the contractor themselves or an employee of theirs? If they’re bringing along an apprentice or other workers, find out what their job role is and what they’re responsible for. I ensure that all my employees are trained to the high standard I work to – ask your contractor if his workers are trained similarly, or if they are subcontractors.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing if your contractor is going to be subcontracting extra work; if they can explain why it’s needed. This shows they’re being honest about how much work they can handle by themselves, they’ve got the experience to know when to bring in extra pairs of hands. This shows that they’re really thinking the project through. Just make sure to find out who the subcontractors are and ask why he trusts them – do your own research into their business too.
12 How will you clean up every working day and at the end of the project?
Will they be working until the evening when you’d rather have the house to yourself? Find out what parts of your home will be a building site and for how long, get them to add this to the written schedule if it’s not already on there. They might bring a skip and take away all the construction rubbish and trash with them, or that might be your responsibility.
13 How do I pay for your services?
If they prefer everything to be in cash an upfront, that’s generally a bad sign. They could be scamming you or they could just be terrible at their job and want the cash before you find out how bad a job they will do. Either way, you’ll want to cross this contractor off the list or research them with further scrutiny.
If they’re pushy about payment before any work has even been started, even going so far as to recommend loans, then best to avoid them completely. Good contractors will be confident that they can carry out good work and impress you with little or no down payment to cover initial costs and they will be transparent about this.
14 What happened here?
By now you should have done a fair bit of research into the contractors you’re vetting. If you came across problems, bad reviews or anything else that was a red flag, now is the time to ask about it and find out what really happened. There could be a reasonable explanation or you might have just caught out a con.
15 Can you give me written confirmation?
Even if you and the contractor aren’t ready to get a quote and move forward with the hire, always ask for estimations of costs to be in writing. “About £10,000” isn’t good enough. Ask for a written estimation which should include estimated costs of materials, completion date, security and safety requirements, rubbish disposal and everything else so that you can see what the whole process could be like, and how much it could cost, from beginning to end before you hire.
Lastly, I’d recommend that you meet your contractor in person at some point before work begins, and never let a contractor make you feel like you’re an inconvenience when asking these questions. Add as many questions as you like to personalise this list to your project.